935 A.2d 82 (R.I. 2007), 2005-190, Gonder v. State

Docket Nº:2005-190-MP.
Citation:935 A.2d 82
Opinion Judge:ROBINSON, Justice.
Party Name:Robert O. GONDER v. STATE of Rhode Island.
Attorney:Superior Court, Providence County, Robert D. Krause. (PM 96-356) Leo Manfred, Esq., Westerly, for Plaintiff. Aaron Weisman, Esq., Providence, for Defendant. Present: WILLIAMS, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, SUTTELL, and ROBINSON, JJ. Leo Manfred, Esq., Westerly, for Plaintiff. Aaron Weisman, Esq., Pr...
Case Date:November 16, 2007
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island

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935 A.2d 82 (R.I. 2007)

Robert O. GONDER


STATE of Rhode Island.

No. 2005-190-MP.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

November 16, 2007

Superior Court, Providence County, Robert D. Krause. (PM 96-356)

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Leo Manfred, Esq., Westerly, for Plaintiff.

Aaron Weisman, Esq., Providence, for Defendant.



ROBINSON, Justice.

The applicant, Robert O. Gonder, seeks review from this Court of the denial of his application for postconviction relief. This case came before the Court for oral argument on October 1, 2007, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this case should not be summarily decided. After considering the record, the briefs submitted by the parties, and the oral arguments of counsel, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown and that the case should be decided at this time. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the ruling of the Superior Court.

Facts and Travel

On April 15, 1994, Mr. Gonder was charged by indictment with the first-degree murder of his wife, Marie Gonder. A jury trial commenced on February 7, 1995. On February 13, however, in exchange for the state's agreement to withdraw its request that he be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,

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Mr. Gonder pled guilty to the first-degree murder of his wife, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

On January 24, 1996, Mr. Gonder filed an application for postconviction relief pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 10-9.1-1, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel by his trial attorney. Counsel was appointed by the Superior Court to represent Mr. Gonder and to investigate the merits of his claims. The appointed attorney reviewed the record and, on May 3, 2001, filed with the court a memorandum, wherein he concluded that Mr. Gonder's application for postconviction relief lacked merit. Together with that memorandum, the same attorney filed a motion to withdraw from further representation of Mr. Gonder, and in the text of said motion the attorney requested that Mr. Gonder be informed that he could proceed pro se.

On May 21, 2001, without holding a hearing, the justice of the Superior Court to whom the case was assigned issued an order denying Mr. Gonder's application for postconviction relief and granting counsel's motion to withdraw. Mr. Gonder then filed a notice of appeal with this Court with respect to that order. At that point, the state conceded that there was error in the court's failure to have held a hearing, as required by chapter 9.1 of title 10 and this Court's opinion in Shatney v. State, 755 A.2d 130 (R.I. 2000). Consequently, on December 4, 2002, this Court vacated the order denying Mr. Gonder's application for postconviction relief and remanded the case for a hearing.

On remand, Mr. Gonder filed, pro se, an amended application for postconviction relief. In his amended application, in addition to claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, Mr. Gonder alleged: (1) that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol both at the time of the murder and at the time that he reported the shooting of his wife to the police; (2) that, while he was being interrogated, the police denied him access to his attorney and coerced him into making a confession by manipulating his altered state of mind; and (3) that, after he was arrested, the victim's family seized his material assets, thus preventing him from retaining the counsel of his choice and requiring him to be represented by a public defender.

A hearing on the amended application for postconviction relief was held on December 16, 2004. After indicating that the ultimate issue to be decided was whether or not Mr. Gonder's guilty plea was voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, the hearing justice concluded that Mr. Gonder's allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel lacked merit; accordingly, he denied the application for postconviction relief. It is from that denial that Mr. Gonder now seeks review by this Court.

Standard of Review

Section 10-9.1-1 provides that postconviction relief is a remedy available to any person who has been convicted of a crime and who thereafter alleges either that the conviction violated the applicant's constitutional rights or that the existence of newly discovered material facts requires vacation of the conviction in the interest of justice.1 Larngar v. Wall, 918 A.2d 850, 855 (R.I. 2007). In our decision in the case of State v. Thomas, 794 A.2d 990 (R.I. 2002), we set forth the following criteria with respect to this Court's review of a hearing justice's decision concerning an application for postconviction relief:

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"We will not disturb a trial justice's findings on an application for postconviction relief absent clear error or a showing that the trial justice overlooked or misconceived material evidence. * * * However, questions of fact concerning whether a defendant's constitutional rights have been infringed, and mixed questions of law and fact with constitutional implications, are reviewed de novo. * * * Finally, findings of historical fact, and inferences drawn from those facts, will still be accorded great deference by this Court, even when ade novo standard is applied to the issues of constitutional dimension." Id. at 993 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).2



Ineffective Assistance of Counsel


The Strickland Test

Mr. Gonder asserts that his application for postconviction relief should have been granted because he was allegedly deprived of his right to the effective assistance of counsel. In his application, Mr. Gonder alleges a number of deficiencies with regard to his trial attorney's performance.3 At the core of his argument is the allegation that, if his attorney had provided him with effective assistance, he would not have pled guilty. Accordingly, he contends that his plea should be vacated because it was not made knowingly, intelligently, or voluntarily.

In reviewing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, this Court has adhered to the standards set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). See, e.g., Armenakes v. State, 821 A.2d 239, 245 (R.I. 2003); Brennan v. Vose, 764 A.2d 168, 171 (R.I. 2001); Brown v. Moran, 534 A.2d 180, 182 (R.I. 1987). We have stated that [t]he benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsels conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result. Heath v. Vose, 747 A.2d 475, 478 (R.I. 2000) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 686, 104 S.Ct. 2052).

In accordance with the standards set forth in Strickland, an applicant who is claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must satisfy both parts of a two-prong test in order to prevail. 466 U.S. at 687-88, 104 S.Ct. 2052. First, the defendant must show that counsels performance was deficient.* * * Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Brown, 534 A.2d at 182 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052); see also Burke v. State, 925 A.2d 890, 893 (R.I. 2007); Larngar, 918 A.2d at 856.

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With respect to the first prong of the Strickland test, in determining whether counsels performance was deficient, a strong (albeit rebuttable) presumption exists that counsel's performance was competent. State v. Figueroa, 639 A.2d 495, 500 (R.I. 1994). With regard to the second prong of the Strickland test, [p]rejudice exists if there is a reasonable probability that, absent counsel's deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052).


Trial Counsel's Performance

It is noteworthy that, at the time that Mr. Gonder entered his guilty plea, the following colloquy took place in open court:

"THE COURT: Mr. Gonder, first let me ask you whether or not you have had full and...

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